Wilhelmina Barns-Graham CBE HRSA HRWA HRSW

WBG at Art First, London, 2000.
Photo: Simon Norfolk

An Introduction to Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

by Douglas Hall

Early Life

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, known as Willie, painter, printmaker and draughtsman, was born in St Andrews, Fife on 8 June 1912, the eldest child of Allan Barns-Graham and his wife Wilhelmina Meldrum, of an old landed family in Stirlingshire and Fife.  It was a family already old-fashioned in its formality, even austerity; religious, quietly philanthropic but not given to showing emotion.  Though secure in their status the Barns-Graham family was far from rich.

This was not a background conducive to art.  Willie showed very early signs of creative ability which could safely be dismissed by her parents as mere diversions of childhood. But the sensations of artistry were too deeply imprinted to go away. By the time she was a senior pupil at St Hilda’s School in Edinburgh, Willie’s determination to become an artist had set as hard as her father’s determination she should not.  With the support of an aunt, the dispute was resolved in her favour, but it exacted a toll on both parties.  Allan Barns-Graham did not reject his daughter but it was again her aunt who negotiated with him that Willie could attend the Edinburgh College of Art.

Edinburgh College of Art

Barns-Graham attended the College from October 1931 and finally graduated, after setbacks caused by illness, in 1937.  The connection with the College did not end with graduation.  Barns-Graham was awarded her first scholarship in June 1935, and further awards in each of the following five years.  Thus intermittently continuing study at the College until 1939, she also exhibited at the Summer Exhibitions of the RSA until 1945.  This does not imply a parochial background.  She and her friends such as William Gear and Margaret Mellis were acquainted with modern art in both London and Paris in the 1930s.  The Principal of the College since 1932, Hubert Wellington, was aware that some of the most advanced talents in Britain had gathered at St Ives in Cornwall for the duration of the War.  In 1940 both the war situation and Barns-Graham’s poor health suggested to him that this would be a suitable refuge for her, and she arrived in St Ives in March 1940.

 

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WBG painting at her easel. The painting in progress, Edinburgh Interior, exists in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust’s collection (BGT328). WBG Alva St Studio Edinburgh 1937.
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No.1 Porthmeor Studio, St Ives, 1947
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WBG with 'Rock Form', 1954. The Rock Form images comprise an important series of paintings of the early/mid 1950s. The version shown is one of the largest. Photo: Western Morning News.

St Ives Beginnings

From that date Barns-Graham’s history is bound up with the School of St Ives, where she retained a studio until her death. Through Margaret Mellis and her husband, Adrian Stokes, who were already there, she was early introduced to Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, leaders of the modern artists.  She got to know the ‘primitive’ Alfred Wallis and the autodidakt Sven Berlin.  Barns-Graham’s concerns with precise drawing and ordering of shapes and colour were confirmed by these experiences.  Nicholson liked her drawing and while she learned from him the relationship was not one-sided.  The group of painters now known as the St Ives School began to form only after the end of the war, with Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton all living or staying frequently in St Ives. With their arrival as young men determined to make careers and exploit a new atmosphere favourable to modernism, the St Ives scene became competitive.  As they strove to establish their names and dealerships in London or abroad, Barns-Graham began to feel that she was being side-lined.  

Another visitor to St Ives in 1947 was an aspiring young poet, David Lewis.  They met and despite an age difference of about ten years, were married in 1949.  The next ten years saw the full development of Barns-Graham’s powers as a modern painter. It was, in general terms, in line with that of St Ives School, starting with abstractions based firmly on perception, as in her Glacier paintings of the early 50s, and moving to a free and intensely personal use of the brush. These were also years when Barns-Graham and her husband travelled widely, met other modern artists in Paris and toured in Italy.  It was not to last. In 1956 David Lewis enrolled in the School of Architecture at Leeds.  Accompanying him, Barns-Graham taught for a session at Leeds School of Art.  She did not return for the next session and her separation from Lewis became permanent.  They were divorced in 1963.

 

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WBG sketching from a vantage point above Porthgwidden 1950s. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI)
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WBG at work in her studio. Porthmeor Studios 1947.
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WBG working on Progression, 1966. WBG painting in her St Ives studio. The painting is in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust collection (BGT473). Photo: Ander Gunn.

Mid Career

In 1960 Barns-Graham inherited from her aunt, Mary Neish, a family house, Balmungo, near St Andrews, initiating a new phase in her life.  She now began to divide her time between St Ives and St Andrews.  For the time being the result was loss of recognition in St Ives with a questionable gain in Scotland or in London. Her work did not falter but it changed direction, now employing hard-edged geometric and linear forms. Her capacity to make them serve the purpose of expression was unique.  Never static, her forms are always in motion across the surface.  These remained the basis of her work for the next two decades. Barns-Graham was not really short of exposure in the 60s and 70s but felt she had lost the commercial edge to other St Ives painters.  The memory of the jockeying for advantage in St Ives remained a bitter one all her life.  This seemed to be confirmed in 1985 when the Tate Gallery organised a large exhibition St Ives 1939 – 64 showing only three works by Barns-Graham against twenty, for example, by Roger Hilton.  However, the event did mark the beginning of a revival in her spirits and fortunes, continued by the retrospective in 1989 at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, and at Penzance.

The Last Years

The last phase of her work was just beginning.  From about 1988 to her death there was an outpouring of triumphant and beautiful work employing the full resources, of line, colour, shape and calligraphic brushwork, employed with all the brio and freedom, of a vastly experienced painter. She added to her repertory the screen prints which introduced the joyfulness of her work to a new market.   Wilhelmina Barns-Graham died on 26 January 2004, deeply mourned and honoured; she was made CBE in 2001. She also lived to see published in 2001 the first full biography, by Lynne Green, a revelation to all who open it, which showed for the first time how tightly woven into the fabric of modern art in Britain and abroad was this remarkable woman.  By her Will, Barns-Graham set up a charitable trust for the better preservation of her artistic legacy, and to provide bursaries for art students such as she herself received in youth.

 

Through the Decades with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

by Karolina Brichtova

 

‘Through the Decades with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’ is a series of short articles prepared by one of our 2018 interns from St Andrews University, Karolina Brichtova, which were first published in social media posts. With many thanks to Karolina, here is the complete set which she was able to write before completing her internship.

Through the Decades with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham | THE 1940s

 

It was a wet March day when Wilhelmina Barns-Graham arrived in St Ives. “I came to St. Ives in 1940, partly to get away from my family. I had friends here in St. Ives and through them, I met Nicholson and Hepworth but I didn’t want to get too mixed up with them at that stage because I knew they would be too strong an influence on me and I very much wanted to go in my own direction.” Encouraged by the principal of Edinburgh College of Art, Hubert Wellington, Willie, as she was known, had headed south as much for her health as to become involved with the rising art community that revolved around Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Willie was quickly introduced to key artists in the area, a studio found for her by Captain Borlase Smart, Secretary of the St Ives Society of Artists .

Her time in St Ives was vital as she explored new forms of painting and played a leading role in the creation of the influential Penwith Society. In 1941 all women aged between 1940 were called up by the Ministry of Labour to assist with the War Effort and Wilhelmina was summoned to create camouflage nets and was later enrolled as an air raid warden. War restrictions prevented outdoor painting of landscapes, resulting in images being painted remotely.

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Island Factory, St Ives (Camouflage No.2) 1944
pastel on paper, 38.4 x 56.2 cm
BGT1642

Through the Decades with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham | THE 1950s

Towards Abstraction and the Golden Section.

The 1950s can be regarded as one of the most turbulent yet also most creative and influential periods in both Willie’s personal and professional life. Her now famous 1949 sojourn in Switzerland, particularly a visit to the Grindelwald Glacier, marked a decisive turn in her artistic expression and resulted in a growing inclination towards a fundamentally abstract language, which she developed throughout the forthcoming decade. Fascinated with natural geometry created by crystallisation, Willie later reworked this theme, this time through a more abstract lens, into works such as the 1952 Rock Forms, similarly inspired by the rock formations of a rough Cornish landscape.

This interest soon matured into a dedication to depict the surrounding world with the help of geometric principles, most notably the so-called 'Golden Section', a method of division in a mathematically determined rectangle. Willie’s employment of this approach is perhaps best reflected in the Geoff and Scruffy works, a series to a degree inspired by her friend Geoffrey Tribe and his dog Scruffy. Reoccurring in the 1980s in different colour arrangements and shifting direction of the composition, these consistently feature two shapes - one semi-circular and one oblong form connected with narrow bands.

In contrast to the 1940s which Willie spent mostly in St Ives, the 1950s was a period rich on international travels. In 1951 Willie visited Italy and the Venice Biennale and two years later travelled to Paris, where she met Giacometti and Arp, as well as many other contemporary artists. In 1954, after winning the prestigious Italian government scholarship, Willie spent an entire year travelling through Italy. Tuscany in particular enchanted her and became an inspiration for many drawings and gouaches, perhaps most notably the Chiusure works, such as Clay Workings, Chiusure, 1954, where she similarly to the glacier works, masterfully captured the multi-faceted forms and structures found in nature.

In the autumn of 1956 Willie followed her husband David Lewis, who enrolled in the School of Architecture at Leeds, to Yorkshire, where she spent a session teaching life drawing at Leeds School of Art. Although brief, Willie’s time in the North coincided with a booming period for the city’s art scene. While on staff at the school, she engaged in local artistic circles, participating on several leading exhibitions, including shows at the Bradford City Art Gallery's Spring exhibitions (1955, 1956), the Leeds City Art Gallery Yorkshire Artists’ Exhibition (1957) and Wakefield City Art Gallery Modern Art in Yorkshire show (1957). The latter exhibition in particular attracted considerable media attention, especially regards Willie’s Snow at Wharfedale paintings, inspired by the wintry landscape of the Yorkshire high dales.

While her professional life flourished, resulting in her first exhibition as a solo artist in Edinburgh in 1956, her marriage to Lewis suffered, eventually leading to their separation at the end of her academic tenure in 1957. The perhaps most powerful of the works created for the Wakefield show is Red Painting (1957)*. Its intense expressiveness embodies a culmination of the themes and sources explored throughout the 1950s, particularly the strong attention to the mathematical relationships between dynamic forms, a tendency which Willy continued to explore in the next decade.

*On loan to National Galleries of Scotland and currently installed at Bute House, Edinburgh, official residence of Scotland's First Minister.

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Rock Forms 1952
oil on canvas
60.9 x 106.8 cm
BGT6215
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Clay Workings, Chiusure 1954
pencil and tempera on paper
39.8 x 51.8 cm
BGT752
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Snow at Wharfedale I 1957
oil on canvas
49 x 74.8 cm
BGT573

Through the Decades with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham | THE 1960s

Whilst the 1960s build on the abstract foundations Willie began to pursue in the previous decade, the art of this period is also marked with a sense of personal reflection. It was arguably Willie’s visit to the Balearic Islands and Spain in 1958, which shaped her artistic vision for the early part of the decade. Using fluid paint marks as the main form of expression, Willie experimented with colour, which resulted in a body of work that was both dynamic and deeply stirring. In Untitled (Tarragona), exhibited at her second exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1960, Willie employs red and brown tones and heavy brushstrokes, evoking the parched, sun-kissed soil of the Mediterranean coast - a remarkable shift from the geometry aligned landscapes which she painted in Yorkshire.

It was nevertheless not only her international travels which set the course for her new stylistic approach to colour, but perhaps even more decisively her changing personal circumstances. In addition to the annulment of her marriage to Lewis and the acquisition of her new St Ives studio residence (Barnaloft) in 1963, Willie had inherited in 1960 the Balmungo estate outside St Andrews from her aunt Mary Neish, which meant that she now moved regularly back and forth between St Ives and her hometown. These events contributed to Willie focussing more intensely on her work. In later years she came to recognise that this led to her growing isolation, as much established by her herself as inflicted by others, from the St Ives ‘school’.

A new direction came with an interest in more meditative aspects of painting. A recurring concept which emerges during this decade is her use of the square motif. Often featured in a clusters collapsing into space across the picture plane, these compositions are part of what is collectively referred to as the Order and Disorder works. It is here Willie begins to explore the spatial dynamics between objects, ultimately seeking to articulate pictorially the relation between cause and effect, presented as an individual event and the cumulative chain reaction it triggers.

Although difficult on a personal level, the 1960s were a ground-breaking period for Willie’s professional life and development as an artist, culminating in a number of exhibitions, such as the 1968 show at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, and many international group shows in New York, Canada and Sweden. The decade further establishes Willie’s outstanding creativity as well as her ambition to experiment and thus constantly evolve as an artist.

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Untitled (Tarragona) 1960
gouache on paper
58.3 x 91 cm
BGT3035
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Cinders 1964
oil on canvas
58.7 x 91.2 cm
BGT709

Through the Decades with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham | THE 1970s

Essays in hue and line.

The meditative aspect of Barns-Graham’s work explored in the 1960s continued to evolve during the following decade. Although an interest in geometrical shapes remains a cornerstone of her style, a new development can be traced in her shift from shape to hue. The works executed during the 1970s are more lyrical in contrast to the tight and meticulously calculated geometries characteristic of the 1960s.

This evocation of lightness and different moods becomes a common theme throughout the decade. While Lime Green, Orange and Blue Mediterranean (1972) continues to revolve around a precise, choreographed arrangement of vibrant circles and semicircles in various sizes and rectangles, it simultaneously demonstrates Willie’s growing inclination towards the use of saturated colour.

The Meditation Series, which Barns-Graham produced in the second half of the 1970s, further builds on her fascination with squares and relationships between them, resulting in analytical yet highly emotional essays in colour sensation. Gifted with synesthesia, a condition which allows the association of all sensory information (in her case) with colour, Barns-Graham used this particular intense sensibility to translate her experiences directly onto the canvas.

A phenomenon which emerged in this period was a dedication to portray the hidden layering in natural forms. Starting with a recapitulation of the glacier theme, Willie later shifted her attention from rocky formations to ocean movements characteristic of both St Ives as well as her native St Andrews. Atlantic Squall and Wave Energy both of 1975, are intense yet poetic studies on this theme. Expressed through a sequence of continually drawn lines, these works have the ability to directly translate the dramatic and highly unpredictable rise and fall of the ocean waves.

This stylistic direction can be in part attributed to Barns-Graham's changing personal circumstances. Dividing both her private and professional life between Balmungo and St Ives meant a frequent change in the surrounding landscape, enabling the artist to use her imagination and merge her perception of both locations into a single experience.

Professionally the end of the 1970s was a rich exhibiting period for Barns-Graham. In 1977 she was part of Tate’s show of 14 St Ives artists, and later that year in an exhibition at the New Art Centre that celebrated art in Cornwall between 1945-55 as the first outline of modernism in St Ives. Additionally, the friendship and support of Rowan James, who had become Barns-Graham’s assistant in 1973, was crucial for both her life and work in these years and was to be even more so throughout the next three decades.

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Lime Green, Orange and Blue Mediterranean 1972
oil on hardboard
50.6 x 50.7 cm
BGT370
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More or Less (Meditation 4) 1978
acrylic on canvas
122.4 x 92 cm
BGT384
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Wave Energy 1975
pen, ink, oil on card
17.4 x 17.6 cm
BGT142

Portraits of Wilhelmina

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WBG drawing on beach, Fife, 1982. WBG regularly visited the beaches around St Andrews. The photograph was taken on St Andrews’ East Sands, which was the source behind one of WBG’s most popular images Eight Lines (etched in two editions in 1996 and 2001). Photo: Antonia Reeve.
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WBG at Rubbish Dump, 1947. WBG searching the local rubbish dump for ‘hidden colours’. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI).
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At Buckingham Palace receiving CBE, 2001. Photo: Geoffrey Bertram.
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A Meeting of the Crypt Group 1947. Left to right – Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter (hidden), Sven Berlin, WBG, John Wells and Guido Morris. Photo: Central Office of Information, London (COI).
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Balmungo, 1992. WBG working in her studio at Balmungo House, St Andrews. The painting is unidentified. Photo: Laura Graham.
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Barnaloft Studio, 1985. WBG working on an oil painting Summer Painting No.2 which is in the Barns-Graham Charitable Trust collection (BGT463). Photo: David Crane.
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WBG Portrait, 1990s. Photographed in the studio set against an unfinished work on canvas. Photo: Rowan James.
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No.1 Porthmeor Studio, St Ives 1947. WBG at her easel.
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WBG at Art First, 2000. The shot was taken in the front gallery of Art First, London. Her screenprint Another Time hangs on the wall behind. Photo: Simon Norfolk
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WBG in Italy, 1955, on the Italian Government Travel Award. Photo: David Lewis.
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Grindelwald Glacier, Switzerland 1949. WBG (second from the left) with the Brotherton Family and local guide. Photo: P.N. Brotherton.
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WBG with Prof Martin Kemp on receiving honorary PhD St Andrews 1992. Photo: Peter Adams.
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WBG at Tate St Ives 1993
Photo: Anne Purkiss
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WBG in her Living Room overlooking Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1993
Photo: Anne Purkiss
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Portrait of WBG 1993
Photo: Anne Purkiss

Works in Public and Corporate Collections

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s art has been acquired by public and corporate collections throughout the UK as well as internationally.  Collections include:

  • Aberdeen Art Gallery

  • Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

  • Art in Healthcare, Scotland

  • Arts Council of Great Britain, London

  • Bank of Scotland Collection, London

  • Baring Brothers & Co.

  • Birmingham City Museum & Art Gallery

  • Borders Hospital, Melrose

  • British Council, London

  • British Museum, London

  • Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London

  • Contemporary Art Society, London

  • Cornwall Education Committee

  • Cornwall, Truro School Collection

  • Department of the Environment, London

  • Deutsche Bank AG

  • Diamond Trading Co.

  • Dumfries & Galloway Council

  • Dundee Museum and Art Gallery

  • Edinburgh City Art Centre

  • Edinburgh College of Art

  • Falmouth Art Gallery

  • Falmouth University

  • Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

  • Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

  • Glasgow Women's Library

  • Government Art Collection

  • Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries

  • Hawick Museum

  • Hepworth Wakefield

  • Hertfordshire Education Authority

  • Highland Regional Council

  • Hocken Library, University of Otago, New Zealand

  • Hove Museum and Art Gallery

  • The Ingram Collection

  • Isle of Man Arts Council

  • The Jerwood Collection

  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museums, Glasgow

  • Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

  • King’s College, Cambridge

  • Kirkcaldy Art Gallery

  • Leeds City Art Gallery

  • Leeds Education Authority

  • Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie

  • London Borough of Camden

  • Maclaurin Art Gallery, Ayr

  • Manchester City Art Gallery

  • Michigan University Museum, USA

  • Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton

  • National Westminster Bank, London

  • Newhall College, Cambridge

  • New South Wales Art Gallery, Sydney, Australia

  • Nuffield College, Oxford

  • Pallant House, Chichester

  • Penwith Galleries, St Ives

  • Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster University

  • Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney

  • Plymouth City Art Gallery

  • Plymouth College of Art

  • Porthmeor Studios, St Ives

  • Portsmouth City Art Gallery

  • Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

  • Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh

  • Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

  • Sheffield Art Gallery

  • Southampton City Art Gallery

  • Southampton University

  • St Ives Borough, Cornwall

  • Tate Gallery, London

  • The Fleming Collection London

  • The Royal Collection

  • Truro School Collection, Cornwall

  • University of Dundee

  • University of Edinburgh

  • University of Leeds, Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery

  • University of St Andrews

  • University of Stirling

  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

  • West Riding Education Authority (the former)

  • Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

  • Wolverhampton City Art Gallery

  • York Museum Trust

Selected Bibliography

This bibliography highlights the principal books and articles on Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s art and includes those which describe her art within the wider context of C20th British Art. 

Obituaries

  • January 28, 2004 The Times

  • January 28, 2004 The Daily Telegraph

  • January 28, 2004 The Independent

  • January 29, 2004 The Guardian

  • January 29, 2004 The Cornishman

  • January 29, 2004 West Briton

  • January 30, 2004 Dundee Courier

  • January 30, 2004 The St Ives Times & Echo

  • January 30, 2004 The St. Andrews Citizen

  • February 2, 2004 The Scotsman

  • February 7, 2004 The Yorkshire Post